Split within Twin Cities Jewish community on Iran deal reflects larger debate

REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Secretary of State John Kerry delivering a statement on the Iran talks deal at the Vienna International Center in Vienna, Austria, on July 14.

Sometimes, the best decision may be no decision at all.

For example, following an earnest debate at a recent board meeting of the Minnesota & Dakotas chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council, members — by a narrow margin — decided that the organization should take no position on the proposed nuclear deal between the United States and Iran.

Eric Schwartz, a board member and dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, led the argument that it would be best if the organization remained neutral on the deal. “Given the wide variety of views in the community on the [Iran] agreement, should an organization that represents an entire community take a position, or should it be a forum where people of all points of view can express their positions?” Schwartz asked. 

“No position” isn’t the sort of deal that gets huge media coverage, though. It appears to be an honest position, though, given that it reflects the fact that there is not a universal opinion among American Jews about whether the deal should go forward. Nationally, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is the umbrella group for JCRC chapters around the country, has not taken a position, either.

No organization speaks for all

In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Todd Gitlin, chairman of the Ph.D. communications program at Columbia University, and Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College, said that there has been a large “rift” between the so-called “U.S. Jewish leadership” and American Jews. 

Large organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee have strongly opposed the deal, leaving the impression among many Americans that most American Jews are opposed. But polling done by Cohen shows that a majority of Jews actually support the proposed deal.

Cohen and Gitlin said the reasons for the disconnect between Jewish organizations and individuals likely center around the fact that leaders of the Jewish organizations are both older and wealthier than the Jewish population as a whole, and thus tend to be more conservative.

Norm Coleman
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Norm Coleman

But the rift should serve as a reminder that no organization speaks for all — or even a majority — of the people it claims to represent. No Jewish organization speaks for all Jews just as no Christian organization speaks for all Christians. 

And the rift should also serve as a reminder that, especially on complex issues such as this treaty deal, most of us are caught in a muddled middle. Even while those with strong — even strident — positions get the headlines. As do those with the money.

One example: Republican former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman is teaming with former Sen. Joseph Lieberman in creating the American Security Initiative to raise millions in order to purchase television ads to pressure politicians to oppose the agreement. (The ads are running in North Dakota, but not Minnesota. One ad features an Iraq war veteran with facial wounds saying that those who support the deal “will have blood on their hands.”) 

‘People I respect … feel differently’                

That’s the sort of rhetoric many are attempting to avoid.  

Michael Latz, rabbi at Shir Tikvah, a progressive reform congregation in Minneapolis, points to the position taken by the Union for Reform Judaism, which has a following of 1.5 million people. That organization said the focus of U.S. Jews and politicians in both the U.S. and Israel must “focus on the day after.”

Whether the deal is ultimately agreed to or rejected, the statement argues, “it is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis or among American Jews.” 

Rabbi Michael Latz
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
Rabbi Michael Latz

Latz noted that this is not the sort of position that has made a media dent, even in the oh-so-serious New York Times. But it shows that people are taking the issue seriously and understand that people of good will can have opposite views.

Latz is a liberal, and is among 340 rabbis who signed a letter supporting the deal. The signees, by the way, represented a denominational cross section of American Judaism. But on this issue Latz is no demagogue.

“People I love and deeply respect feel differently than I do on this issue,” he said. He understands the differences because the issue is not a black and white one in his mind either. He says he “reluctantly has come to supporting the treaty,” though he doesn’t believe it’s perfect, doesn’t trust Iran and is “deeply committed to Israel.’’ 

But the bottom line, in his mind, is that “it’s the best chance we have.’’ 

The conversation over the treaty is ongoing and heartfelt in the Twin Cities Jewish community, Latz said. He believes that there are more people who support the agreement than not.

The responsibility to be informed

Still, there is a broader question that crosses all demographic lines. How much should each of us be expected to understand about an international agreement such as this? As Latz says, “I can do a Bar Mitzvah, but what do I know about a centrifuge?’’

Eric Schwartz
Eric Schwartz

Schwartz, the JCRC board member, said that in a democracy we all have “a responsibility to have informed perspectives and opinions.” There are two ways to go about this, in his mind. We can each study issues carefully, listen to experts and make an assessment of our own. Or, we put our faith in political leaders we trust and give them “your proxy” vote on difficult issues. In either case, Schwartz said, it’s important to separate partisanship from policy.

When the debate about the JCRC taking a position on the treaty took place, the first vote was on a motion to oppose the treaty. That was defeated. Then the “neutral” position was supported. 

“I would hesitate to characterize positions of many of the members,” said Schwartz. “They all had their own reasons for voting as they did.’’

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 08/24/2015 - 10:20 am.

    If only all of our country;s faith leaders were willing to deal with the ambiguity of complex issues with the wisdom and thoughtfulness that Rabbi Latz shows here, our entire country would be strengthened.

  2. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 08/24/2015 - 02:58 pm.

    The same schism exists in Israel and if the fear monger Netanyahu had not won reelection, it would not be an issue here.

    Fear may win out here as well, but hopefully there will be consequences in November of 2016 for Republican war mongers with their letters to Iran and addresses from Netanyahu.

  3. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/24/2015 - 05:48 pm.

    An interesting assumption.

    Cohen and Gitlin said the reasons for the disconnect between Jewish organizations and individuals likely center around the fact that leaders of the Jewish organizations are both older and wealthier than the Jewish population as a whole, and thus tend to be more conservative.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 08/25/2015 - 03:54 pm.

      I think there are much more basic reasons.

      First, organizations such as those cited that are advocating against the agreement self-select for their leadership those for whom Zionism is inseparable from Judaism. Necessarily their stance will not represent the middle of the demographic for whom they purport to speak.

      Second, and connected, organizations that purport to speak for a larger group typically represent a membership that consciously chooses to affiliate with them by joining or contributing. If I, having two feet, form the Bipedal Advocacy Committee and proclaim that I speak for all those with two feet, it rightly would be pointed out that I am being presumptuous and that there hasn’t really been a mechanism by which all of the other two-footed people have ratified my claim of proxy. It is really no different for a group that purports to speak for American Jews. Nevertheless, that prominent national Jewish advocacy organizations express what is in the mind of Jews tends to be assumed and no one thinks to question it.

      What I appreciate from my Jewish heritage is the traditionally profound importance placed on each individual’s duty to engage in critical and ethical reflection. It seems quite odd to me to take the position that Jewish identity should override highly individualized critical and moral reflection on a subject as complex as the resolution of historical and intractable claims to land, civic rights and dignity. Jewish organizations, at their best, would offer diverse and morally considered contributions to the public discussion without purporting to speak for anyone.

  4. Submitted by Doug Gray on 08/25/2015 - 01:08 pm.

    in 2015 A.D. …

    After Citizens United, it’s money that talks. “All your politician are belong to us.”

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